Illusion of Control

Illusion of control: Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work

Have you ever pressed the pedestrian button at a crossing and wondered if it really worked? Or hit the “close door” button in an Lift, while suspecting that it may, in fact, have no effect whatsoever? You’re not alone, and you may be right. The world is full of buttons that don’t actually do anything. They’re sometimes called “placebo buttons” — buttons that are mechanically sound and can be pushed, but provide no functionality. Like placebo pills, however, these buttons may still serve a purpose, according to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who pioneered a concept known as the “illusion of control.” “They do have a psychological effect,” she said in a phone interview. “Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good, rather than just being a passive bystander. “Doing something typically feels better than doing nothing

The button you find at traffic lights will only light up the ‘Wait’ signal but it is down to an algorithm to change the lights. When there are many cars it will choose the least congested time to change to amber then red, which is why you may find yourself waiting an eternity for them to change so you can cross.

With thermostats in an office the heat may be getting too much for you so you go and turn it down not realising that it is most likely a dummy thermostat. By turning it down it is believed to give you a placebo effect as you think you have had an impact on the temperature and begin to believe you are cooling down.

These things aren’t just limited to buttons however, many devices emit artificial noises to reassure the user that the device is operating as it should. An example of this is Skype, when a call goes silent a pre-recorded noise such as a car door slamming will be emitted to tell the users that the call is still active and hasn’t been dropped.

Unlike these other placebo buttons, the ‘Close Door’ you’ll possibly find in a lift is real and will close the doors quicker, in the UK anyway. In the USA they are false since they have a disability law that states the doors must be open for a certain amount of time before closing.

The buttons that are fake are designed to provide the feeling of control over the action you are preforming. It was found that control is a reassuring feeling over the course of your actions throughout the day and provides you with a sense of safety so these measures were implemented.

Nationwide Lifts & Escalators Ltd provide lifts that meet all the relevant safety legislation and our in-house engineers conduct their work to the high standards of the industry with professionalism. No matter the lift you have we will ensure it is safe for all and all the buttons will work.

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